One purpose of good writing is to make you not take the things in your life for granted. Two of my favorite writers have recently written about fireplaces.
I love looking at a fire. If there’s a TV on in a bar, I’ve noticed, and there almost always is, the movement pulls your eye to it, no matter how boring what’s on is. A fire is the same, but a fire is never boring. It’s mysterious that it isn’t. Or maybe it’s not mysterious. It’s this miracle life-giving thing you can build in your house, the same thing cave people built in their caves.
Alan Jacobs wrote about the fireplace as a focusing point in a home: “Focus is a Latin word that means hearth — the fireplace that was both literally and metaphorically the center of the Roman household.”
The novelist Kim Stanley Robinson often says that our evolutionary descent predisposes us to be fond of certain actions, like throwing objects at other objects and sitting around a fire telling tales. The latter impulse, he believes, draws us to the movie theater, where we gather in the darkness facing a bright light and enjoy stories — but while that provides a certain form (or simulacrum) of communal connection, it’s the television that becomes the replacement for the family hearth….
When I decided to put our TV over the fireplace, I didn’t realize the symbolic heft of my decision. But one evening, when I mused that it would be easier to show a fireplace video from YouTube than actually build a fire, all the ironies suddenly came home to me.
While I love our pizza and a movie Friday night ritual in front of the TV, there is nothing like a good, real fire.
January has been full of cold(er) weather and grandparent visits, and one of my very favorite parts of each visit was building a fire and sitting around it.
As Elisa writes, it is never boring. It somehow brings out the best I everyone. One night my 10-year-old and spent a whole hour carefully rolling up newspaper into long tubes and throwing them on the fire and watching them burn.
One time when we were sitting around a campfire out in west Texas with the clear star-filled sky above us, Jules, then five years old, exclaimed, “It looks like the fire is trying to tell us a story!”
Whether you tell stories around it or not, every fire is a kind of story — there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end.
At the beginning: the anticipation, the starting, the possibility. (See: Nicholson Baker’s A Box of Matches, about a man who starts a fire every morning and sits and thinks.)
In the middle: the excitement of the crack and whip of the flames.
At the end: I love how fire gets really good when the logs burn up and the flames die down and what’s left is the hot coals, perfect for s’mores. (In his book In Praise of Shadows, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki writes, “Without the red glow of the coals, the whole mood of winter is lost and with it the pleasure of family gatherings round the fire.”)
We love fire and we love using fire as a metaphor. (Most recently: Fire of Love.)
We speak of “the fire inside.” I have had trouble focusing lately, and it occurs to me just now, at this very moment, that maybe the reason I haven’t been able to focus is that I don’t have a fire inside.
Sometimes a fire is forced on us from the outside, as with a housefire or a wildfire. (In the writer’s life: a personal tragedy or triumph, a chance encounter, or merely the need for sustenance will light a fire under one’s ass, so to speak.)
But more often than not, our fires inside have to be built. They have to be started, and fed, and maintained.
And you can’t just dump wood in a big pile and expect it to burn. You have to be mindful of the structure of the pieces, to give them proper space and air.
Perhaps, instead of worrying about focusing, I need to worry about building a good fire.
I suspect if the fire is there, the focus will come.